Every year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reminds us that getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent the flu. This flu season, the CDC is recommending individuals receive the injected flu vaccine rather than the nasal spray version after some research showing it to be less effective than the shot. That’s painful news for children, who often prefer the spray over the needle. How can families make the experience a little more comfortable for kids? Here are five worthwhile tips:
A shot by any other name
The word “shot” on its own can be frightening enough to build anxiety in children. In a 2008 article based on interviews with pediatricians, the Seattle Times recommended using another word, such as vaccination. For the younger crowd, we think “superhero protector” might work even better—and it sure describes the wonder of vaccination accurately. Explain why you bring your child in for this protector and how important it is to beat off illnesses that would feel really awful. But don’t spend a lot of time reassuring them, even in the doctor’s office; a 2010 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal shows that this actually backfires, making kids more anxious. Humor works better, the study found.
Telling a child that the shot won’t hurt isn’t just a lie, it’s ineffective at reducing the child’s perception of pain, the CMAJ study found. Meanwhile, you would set your child up for greater fear and distrust, not only at future inoculation times, but for any visit to a health care provider. If your child asks how much it will hurt, the honest answer is also the most reassuring — it’s different for different people. A child who’s concentrating on the needle heading in might tense up, the Times said, which could result in a more painful shot — um, we meant superhero protector. A child who’s relaxed and focused on something else is likely to notice the needle prick less.
Which leads us to ...
A good time for electronics?
Distraction in the doctor’s office is the best way to keep anxiety and perceived pain low, say various sources including the New York Times’ Well blog. Some suggest pinwheels or blowing bubbles, because there is some evidence that the deep breathing involved reduces the perception of pain — but the evidence isn’t strong, according to the CMAJ article. More important, it said, is that letting the child decide on the distraction — within reason — is more effective at relieving pain than parent-led distractions. For the modern child, that could mean a little zoning out in front of a video. Sure, you don’t want your children to overdo it on electronics, but this could be the perfect time to pull out a tablet or smartphone and let them watch a few minutes of something amusing that they haven’t seen before.
Here's a good one: Clumsy Baby Elephant on Youtube. At just under three minutes, with upbeat music and humorous word-free video of a baby elephant repeatedly trying to climb over a too-big log, it’s a perfect diversion. Lots of people seem to agree; it’s gotten more than 1.5 million views.
A bad time for lying down
According to the CMAJ study, children feel more pain from shots when they’re lying down than when they’re sitting by themselves or in a parent’s lap. It’s unclear why, but researchers suggest lying down might make the child more anxious.
If you’re a breast-feeding mother, this is a great time for doing so. The combination of skin-to-skin contact and the sweetness of the milk appears to be effective and reducing pain, the CMAJ report says.
Physical pain relief
Topical anesthetics applied to the skin at the site of injection are very effective at reducing pain levels, the CMAJ study found. You might want to arrange this with the healthcare provider before the appointment, as discussing it in the office with your child present might make for increased nervousness.
Another thing to ask the healthcare provider about: rubbing or stroking the skin in the injection area just before the shot is given. The CMAJ study evidence that this can be helpful for children ages 4 years and older.
Chances are that your child won’t become a big fan of the annual flu shot, but these evidence-based ways could make the experience less traumatic for everyone involved.
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